In a banquet hall filled with mental health professionals, three Douglas County mothers sat in front of microphones and began talking. They shared thoughts about parenting their children with mental …
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In a banquet hall filled with mental health professionals, three Douglas County mothers sat in front of microphones and began talking.
They shared thoughts about parenting their children with mental illness, the hurdles they jumped navigating the mental health system, stigma around mental health and the toll it all took on their families.
The first mother to speak, Stacie Brown, of Highlands Ranch, said her son has struggled with mental health and substances for years, but it wasn’t until recently that he was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The past year was his worst. He was hospitalized 16 times. He tried six different rehabilitation centers. He’d begun self-medicating with alcohol as nothing the family tried addressed his underlying mental health issues, she said.
“It’s still very fresh,” she said, choking up. “We still struggle.”
He’s on medication now that’s kept him stable over the past two weeks, but their journey is on-going and she’s speaking out, she said, to help other families learn what resources are available.
The women shared their stories June 17 at the Lone Tree Arts Center during the Douglas County Mental Health Summit, co-sponsored by the Douglas County Mental Health Initiative, Douglas County and Colorado Community Media.
“The Mental Health Initiative is a very unique partnership,” said Douglas County Commissioner Roger Partridge, adding that the group’s main goal “is preventing those in need of mental health services from falling through the cracks.”
The panel of women, all representing local families impacted by mental illness, explained through first-hand accounts how accessing mental health care is difficult for families.
They had struggled getting their children to understand they are mentally ill, to accept help or treatment and to commit to treatment once in a facility. They talked about a resistance from the broader community to speak about mental health as compared to physical illnesses, and the stigma placed on people with mental illness.
Mary Beth Kopec, of Roxborough Park, who sat on the panel with Brown, said her neighbors no longer speak with her because they are afraid of the family, which adds to her anxiety when she needs to call first responders for assistance with her son.
“Calling the police in the middle of the night, the fear, the gut-wrenching, the heart-wrenching agony that you feel,” Kopec said. “The sadness and the heart-wrenching feeling for my son. ... He must be in agony.”
She’s been utilizing the mental health system for 20 years to help her son, who is now 45 years old and occasionally has violent outbursts because of his bipolar and schizoaffective disorders.
Kopec and other panel members described further barriers to care, including the cost of medication, knowing whom to call and finding resources.
The Douglas County Mental Health Initiative, which began in 2014, is a partnership of more than 40 organizations looking to close gaps in the mental health system and make the journey easier for families like Brown’s and Kopec’s.
The agenda for the summit featured speakers on suicide, childhood traumas, how the faith-based community can contribute and networking.
Trauma is a common human experience, said Rebecca Kase, director of community relations for Heart Centered Counseling, which offers counseling services in Loveland, Fort Collins, Greeley and Littleton. It is important for treatment providers to be mindful of how many people experience some level of trauma in their lives, she said.
Shannon Breitzman, of Health Management Associates, said parents should be willing to have hard conversations with children on other facets of life so that youths feel comfortable coming to parents if they ever consider suicide. Health Management Associates is a health care consulting and research firm.
The panel of mothers also had suggestions for improving mental health support. More communication among agencies was one tactic, but so was training in compassion. The women understood people working in the mental health system are overwhelmed with large workloads, but more compassion for the people they serve would help families in crisis, they said.
Attendees appeared to find the summit helpful. A real-time poll taken at the close of the summit showed more than 70 people felt they learned something they would use in the future compared to one person who voted that he or she hadn’t.
When asked what topics they were most interested in learning about at the next summit, which has yet to be scheduled, navigating the system, resources, collaboration and prevention were some of the most voted-for issues.
Partridge, in closing the summit, praised the panel of women for speaking out and urged attendees to continue improving the mental health system.
“I ask you,” he said, “and I know you will: Keep the conversation going.”
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